It’s a shame so many men dismiss books by David Nicholls as mere chick lit. In my opinion, this is a very unfair pigeonhole Nicholls has found himself in. Indeed, his 2014 novel Us is a romantic tragicomedy, of sorts, giving off the same sort of bittersweet charm as a Richard Curtis film (and I mean that as a compliment!) whilst being conjoined at the hip with the wry cynicism of an inner monologue by Ricky Gervais.
Us tells the story of Douglas Petersen’s tormented and hapless efforts to salvage his relationship to Cynthia, a woman who has been his wife for the past twenty-five years. Cynthia has told Douglas, in no uncertain terms, that once their 17-year-old son Albie has flown the nest, she wants a divorce. In a bid to win back her love, Douglas decides to take Cynthia and Albie and embark on one final family holiday – a ‘grand tour’ of Europe – as part of a last-ditch attempt to save his marriage.
I can almost tell what you’re thinking: Us sounds like a hackneyed, cloying, overly romantic piece of disposable trash. But you’d be wrong – in fact, not only is Us an immensely readable book, but it’s also unabashedly honest, often quite close to painful to dip in and out of. It’s not that it’s a comedy-of-errors, more that Nicholls has created characters so well-rounded that your heart aches for them at every turn of the page.
Going beyond mere matrimonial angst, Nicholls also explores the brittle father-son relationship between Douglas and Albie with great skill, deftly capturing a trio of characters whose emotions all teeter above tectonic plates, ready to give off tremors without notice. What’s so appealing about Us is how, presumably unlike most so-called ‘chick lit,’ the default setting is that of stark realism, with its humour being a by-product of Douglas’ own inability to accept the writing on the wall. It’s tremendously sad, but also deeply moving.
Nicholls has form when it comes to creating heart-wrenching fiction like this – his 2010 bestseller One Day was a word-of-mouth sensation and towers above the rest of his oeuvre as his magnum opus. Given that Us is his follow-up, it’s no surprise to find it’s not quite as good, but it comes incredibly close. Like One Day, Us offers us an unsentimental window into pain and longing, channelling that raw emotion into humour whilst still managing to tug at your heart-strings.
When it comes to his literary forebears, I’d say David Nicholls is stylistically twinned to Nick Hornby, whose books navigate the same terrain and probably share a similar demographic. Both writers are exquisitely talented, but in Us Nicholls seems to be drawn to far weightier territory, especially when it comes to tackling emotional truths in the past regrets of his characters. Most tellingly, Douglas is a classic ‘unreliable narrator’ – it’s very hard to know if he’s perceiving things as they really are (such is the nature of real-life relationships, of course).
Needless to say, this is well beyond ‘chick lit’ territory, so it’s disappointing it’s been lumbered with that label. Perhaps the only off-putting feature of Us is that it’s not very uplifting – for One Day the story was sustained by a ‘will they/won’t they?’ conceit which gave the reader some hope of conciliation. With Us we can only see a chasm which needs to be bridged, both between Douglas’ wife and his son, yet there are only threads of hope dangling throughout.
Maybe this sense of tension in Us may be too much to bear for some readers, particularly those who have had a troubled relationship with their own fathers, or been touched in some way by divorce. Nevertheless, if you’re attracted to Nicholls’ accessible yet tragicomic style, I hope Us will make as big an impression on you as it did me – as an engaging if slightly withering look at marital strife and family breakdown goes, it’s a ripping read. Take my word for it.
© 2017 Luke Edley
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Humorous fiction writer, poet and aspiring novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.